Reliving old memories in England

The window of a traditional English sweet shop in the village of Steyning, Sussex. Buying sweets was a big treat when I was a school girl.

This week I’ve had the great joy to visit two friends whom I met at boarding school in England when I was ten years old. We have had so much fun laughing and sharing memories. We’ve talked about our schooldays in Berkshire and Oxfordshire, our various marriages, children and now grandchildren.

I hadn’t been back to England in many years even though I moved from the US to Portugal in 2019. Covid made travel almost impossible for two years. The silver lining in that awful cloud, was that my two friends, Julia, Janie and I, reconnected and we’ve been doing a weekly phone call via video technology every week for the past 2 1/2 years. It has meant a lot to us. We have given each other great support, knowing that we are just a phone call away when one of us needs help.

Quintessentially English country town. After so many years living in different countries around the world, it is a delight to me to see such places still exist.

For more than a year we talked about making a trip, all three of us, to our old school, St. Mary’s Wantage in Oxfordshire. The school closed in 2008 and merged with another school elsewhere, but we were curious what had happened to the buildings.

We also wondered what had happened to some of our favorite haunts; the fish and chip shop and King Alfred’s Kitchen which sold the most wonderful fudge! There was also another bakery which sold little chocolate and macaroon treats called “Jap Cakes”. And of course, there was the tea-time favorite “Lardy Cake”. It sounds terrible, but it was the most yummy sweet doughy concoction.

Sadly, time moves on. The buildings were recognizable but the places had changed purpose. King Alfred’s Kitchen is now a Chinese restaurant, the chip shop is a hairdresser’s salon, we couldn’t find the Jap Cake bakery and none of the modern coffee shops sold Lardy Cake.

The old school ain’t what it used to be

We did however find what used to be St. Mary’s. Located near the center of town, the school used to have extensive grounds with lawns and gardens. I imagine developers were rubbing their hands in glee when the school closed because most of the buildings: classrooms, dormitories, the gym and swimming pool, were all torn down and the lawns removed to make room for high density apartments. It was hard to recognize the old place.

Rosalie with the chapel of St. Mary’s School and some of the old dormitories in the background. Very few of the old school buildings are still standing. One of the few is the chapel, where we spent a lot of time. (The school was run by nuns.) The chapel has now become a dentist’s office. I guess you can pray while you get your fillings.

I should also explain, Wantage is known as the birthplace, in 849, of the Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great. He was famous for defending England against invading Danish Vikings and burning some cakes. The legend is that he was taking refuge in a peasant woman’s home and she asked him to watch cakes she was baking by the fire. But the king, distracted by weighty matters of state, let the cakes burn and got a scolding from the peasant woman.

My longtime friend Julia standing in front of a statue of Alfred the Great in Wantage market square.

Follow my adventures and learn tips about living in Portugal and get a copy of my novel, “The Power of Rain”, available from Amazon.

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Retiring in Portugal: myths and reality

A rainbow lands on a home in rural central Portugal. Sometimes moving to a different country is like chasing a rainbow.

Portugal has gained a lot of attention in recent years as a desirable spot to retire. It’s popular image is of a sunny land with lots of beaches, a laid-back lifestyle, low cost of living and friendly people. Portugal is all of those things. One popular misconception though, is that it is a Mediterranean country. Sorry to disappoint, but a look at a world map will quickly show you that Portugal’s western and southern coastlines are all on the Atlantic Ocean. The Mediterranean Sea essentially ends at the Straits of Gibraltar.

If you’re planning to retire in Portugal, it’s important to know that it can be chilly and damp in the winter. It’s not as cold as the UK or many parts of the US, but the dampness can sure leave you shivering. I’ve lived in central Portugal since July 2019 and each year the seasons have been slightly different. My first autumn and winter it rained almost every day from the beginning of November until just before Christmas, and most of the early spring. This year was quite the opposite. We had a relatively dry fall and no rain at all in January and February. The summer was hotter than the previous three summers. By August the country was in a severe drought situation and wildfires were breaking out everywhere.

A wildfire erupts in mid-August near the town of Tomar, central Portugal. There were numerous fires all over the country in July and August 2022 because of exceptionally dry weather.

Home prices

Along with Portugal’s rising popularity, some parts of the country have seen a steep increase in home prices. The Portugal News, an English language paper in Portugal, recently reported that Lisbon is the second most expensive city in southern Europe in which to buy a home. The article said Lisbon prices had overtaken those in Milan, Madrid and Barcelona.

However, housing prices in most of the country are substantially lower than the US and other western European countries as well as the UK and Ireland. A word of caution here; many homes in rural areas are in poor condition and need substantial investment to make them comfortable. Also, you need to be very careful when you buy that there are no additions to the home or outbuildings constructed without the proper planning permission. Illegal additions or outbuildings can cause costly paperwork headaches and delays when you sell the property.

Heating

Many houses in Portugal are built of stone, are poorly insulated and have no central heating system. A lot of people use a “Salamandra” for heating. This refers to a steel or iron wood burning stove, rather than a small reptile. Pellet burning stoves are also popular. In my experience, iron stoves are more expensive to buy, but provide much better warmth. Pellet burners are easier to use – no carrying logs, gathering kindling or messy cleanup. But the price of pellets has more than DOUBLED in recent months, from about 3.50 euros to about 8 euros for a 15 kg. bag (33 lb.)

Electric heaters are widely available, but electricity is relatively expensive in Portugal. Many people use heaters powered by butane which can be rolled from room to room. They are a quick source of heat but should not be left on overnight.

Dampness can mean mould and mildew. It’s important to ensure a flow of air. If it becomes too chilly to leave a window open, buy a dehumidifier. Your clothing will thank you. Putting on a shirt that smells of mildew is awful!

After all these comments, I have to say, I love living in Portugal. It is sunny, the cost of living is low and the people are SO nice!

Follow my blog to learn more about daily life in Portugal. And check out my novel, “The Power of Rain”, available in paperback and Kindle format on Amazon.

The yellow and red lines follow Portugal’s coastline, all of it on the Atlantic Ocean, not the Mediterranean Sea.

Finding your future in Portugal

The red roofs in the center of Lisbon with the Castelo São Jorge on the hilltop above the city.

Portugal is getting a lot of attention as a desirable place to live, mostly for retirees but also a lot of people who can work remotely.

The headline of a Wall Street Journal article that ran in April this year claimed Americans were moving to Portugal “in droves.” According to the story, “Retirees are drawn by a low cost of living, healthcare, a sunny climate and tax incentives,”

The same month a New York Times travel story drew readers in with the headline “A Portugal of Pristine Beaches, Tiny Villages and Little Else.” The article sang the praises of beaches like Comporta in the Alentejo region a short distance south of Lisbon.

Early this year, Momondo‘s Work While Traveling Index ranked Portugal a top place for remote working, based on its climate, social life, relatively affordable cost of living and availability of visas for digital nomads, according to The Portugal News, an English language news source in Portugal. Momondo is a global travel search site that compares flights, hotels and car rental deals.

So, are lots of Americans really moving to Portugal. The answer is yes and no. According to SEF, the Portuguese Immigration and Border Service, the number of Americans who moved to Portugal in 2021 was up 45 percent over the previous year. But they are still a small percentage of the overall population of foreigners living in the country– at the end of 2021 there were about 7,000 Americans living in Portugal, according to a CNBC story about “Burned out millennials flocking to Portugal.” By comparison, SEF figures from June this year show there are nearly 700,000 Brazilians and nearly 42,000 British people living in Portugal, according to the blog site Portugal Resident.

Anecdotally, I am meeting a lot more Americans who have chosen to live in or around my nearby town of Tomar. It’s a charming small city of about 22,000 in the center of the country about 90 minutes by car from Lisbon. People I interviewed for an article in the online lifestyle magazine Portugal Living say they chose Tomar because of its size, its history – the town was a center for the Knights Templar in the Middle Ages – and the location relatively close to the coast, the university city of Coimbra and a direct rail link to Lisbon.

Me, I’ve been living here for a little more than three years and I moved here for all the above reasons, except to work remotely. I am just enjoying retirement and writing this blog!

Tomar castle and the associated Convento de Cristo, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Follow my blog to read more about daily life in Portugal. And don’t forget to order a copy of my book, “The Power of Rain”, available in Kindle or paperback from Amazon.

Want to move to Portugal, but don’t know where to go?

Colorful buildings line the Douro river in Porto and visitors can see the boats that traditionally carried port wine.

A lot of people are interested in moving to Portugal. At least that’s the way it looks when I scan the multiple Facebook groups I’ve joined because they are aimed at expats who are living in, or interested in, Portugal. There are more than a hundred such groups; catering to every possible taste. The question I see over and over, is “I’m planning to move to Portugal in XX many years, what’s the best place to go?”

This is the kind of question that drives those of us who have made the move, absolutely crazy. How can anyone else know where that person would like to live? It depends on so many things.

I have usually responded by advising the person that posted the question to look at their own lifestyle and ask themselves the following:

    Electric tram in Lisbon.
    1. Are you used to living in a city or the country? Which do you prefer?
    2. How much do you like to shop? Do you want to have a big choice of stores nearby or are you okay with small local stores and visiting shopping centers only now and again?
    3. Do you eat out a lot? How important is it for you to have restaurants nearby?
    4. Do you want to have a car? Or are you comfortable with using public transportation?
    5. How often do you want to travel? Is it important for you to be near an airport?

    These are just a few of the questions people who are “thinking” about moving to Portugal should ask themselves. Facebook groups such as Pure Portugal – Living the Good Life, Moving to Portugal, Expats in Portugal Q&A and many, many more, can provide much valuable information. People can pose questions and get answers from those who have already made the move and settled here. Internet research is invaluable, but a trip to the country is the best way to get a real feel for the place. You get to meet the people face-to-face, taste the food, see the landscape and the architecture.

    Portugal is still quite a poor country by comparison with others in western European. Outside the bigger cities, the countryside is depopulated and many villages have a lot of houses that have been sitting empty for years. You can buy them cheaply, but they also take a lot of time and effort to renovate. Still, life in a Portuguese village can be very fulfilling. People are welcoming and willing to help you. Lunch in a small family-run restaurant will cost you as little as 10 euros for a three-course meal with wine and coffee. Cars and gasoline/diesel are expensive, but if you live in the country you will almost certainly need to drive. Most Portuguese roads are narrow and winding, but luckily there is little traffic. The highways are superb but you usually have to pay tolls.

    Portuguese houses are usually made of stone. They keep out the heat in the summer but can be awfully cold and damp in the winter. The Alentejo and Algarve regions are the hottest in the summer and mildest in the winter. Areas in the far north and closer to the Spanish border are typically the coldest in the winter.

    These are just a few thoughts I decided to share about life in Portugal. I moved here more than three years ago after extensive research and a two-month trip during which I did volunteer work and traveled around the country.

    Follow my blog to learn more about life in Portugal! It’s almost olive-picking season!

    Olives are almost ripe for the harvest in my part of central Portugal.

    The Camino calls again: destination Spain

    The cathedral in Santiago de Compostela

    On Monday I am heading to Spain to walk part of the Camino de Santiago again. This will be my third experience of the ancient pilgrimage which takes people along many routes to the city of Santiago de Compostela in the northwestern province of Galicia in Spain.

    In 2015, my former partner and I walked the entire length of what is known as the “Camino Frances” which traditionally starts in St. Jean Pied de Port in France and covers a route of nearly 800 kilometers through northwestern Spain. In 2018, I did part of the Portuguese route, walking from Porto north along the coast and then inland to reach Santiago.

    This time, I am flying from Lisbon to Pamplona, via Madrid and will walk for about a week towards Burgos. My plan is to meet up with, Andrea Mayfield, an acquaintance with whom I walked for a few days back in 2015. We stayed in touch on Facebook and when I saw that she was planning to walk the entire route again I asked if I could join her for a few days.

    I had been thinking about walking part of the Camino Frances route again. I wanted to explore it more slowly, appreciating some of the historic spots I did not see before. When you are walking for 800 kilometers, your feet get pretty tired. Often it seems too much to go even a kilometer out of your way no matter how interesting the sight. This time will be different!

    One of the typical markers along the Camino, showing the shell symbol of St. James the Apostle who is supposed to be buried at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The yellow arrows guide pilgrims along the way.

    Santiago de Compostela has been a place of pilgrimage since the early middle ages. As legend has it, a shepherd discovered bones in a hillside and local bishops determined that they belonged to St. James, one of the twelve apostles, who came to Spain. Each year, hundreds of thousands of people make the journey on foot, bicycle or other means, using many different routes.

    I will be posting each day as I walk along the Camino, so don’t forget to follow my blog. Sign up to get notifications emailed to you when I post.

    My novel getting great reviews

    The cover of my newly published novel “The Power of Rain”

    It has been brutally hot in Portugal in the last month and the weather reminds me of New Mexico. That’s where my newly published novel, “The Power of Rain” is set. Like New Mexico, it has been very dry here in Portugal and a little rain would be more than welcome. Especially as we have had many wildfires burning uncomfortably close to where I live.

    My novel became available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle format in early June and I am thrilled each time I see a review appear on Amazon or Goodreads. These days authors have to do almost all of their own marketing, so I am hoping to get more reviews (hint, hint) so all the more people will get to enjoy the book.

    Here is what some of the readers have said so far:

    Page Turner

    The Power of Rain is the first of what is hoped will be a series of Digger Doyle mysteries. Set in a city in the New Mexico desert, this novel has all the characteristics of a page-turner –romance, underhanded or bewildered City officials, journalists at work to shine light on bureaucratic dealings, nefarious developers and the power of local people who keep showing up and speaking the truth. Digger Doyle is a journalist who, true to her name, digs in and doesn’t give up. I hope the author is working on the sequel – so many mysteries that need sunshine, and stories that need telling.

     Beautiful cultural insight

    This novel brings alive culture and life in New Mexico and puts forth connections between politics, ethics and love. Recommended!

     This is such a fun read!

    It’s a treat to follow the beautifully drawn character, Digger Doyle, in her investigations. Wonderful to see New Mexico, with it’s unique culture and magical landscape, shining so brightly. Can’t wait for the next one. And by the way, this would make the first of a perfect Amazon Original series. Just sayin’.

    This Goodreads review from a Dutch reader living in Portugal

    As a resident in a region in Portugal that is upset by developers that had support of a mayor that didn´t factor in drinking water (of which there is an enourmous shortage), not to mention the damage to nature, this story resonated with me. 
    The main characters are likable and developed, the story is multi layered, the pace is fast and as a reader you go through all kinds of emotions. I especially appreciated the wittiness. I laughed out loud several times when the author described people.
    Can´t wait for the next book in these series!

    Famous Portuguese book store

    A couple of days ago I learned that the historic and very famous Portuguese bookstore Livraria Bertrand, is now selling the book in English. Livraria Bertrand was founded in Lisbon in 1732. The original store in the Chiado district of Lisbon has been declared by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest operating bookstore in the world. Livraria Bertrand also has branches in Coimbra and Leiria.

    The entrance of the original Livraria Bertrand bookstore in the Chiado area of Lisbon. The store has a wide selection of books in English as well as Portuguese, French and other languages.

    The novel was inspired by a lot of the weird and wonderful experiences I observed as a reporter in New Mexico. Now I am retired in Portugal, I am working on another Digger Doyle mystery. Follow my blog to learn more!

    My novel coming out this summer

    This is the cover of my novel “The Power of Rain” a political mystery set in New Mexico.

    It’s really happening! The Power of Rain, the fictional novel I wrote inspired by the strange political shenanigans I observed as a reporter in New Mexico is going to be available in paperback and ebook form this summer.

    There are devious developers, ambitious politicians, a fight over a mysterious Spanish chapel, hectic newsroom scenes, a nasty election campaign, a heartwarming romance and the unpredictable vengeance of desert rain.

    I’ll be writing a lot more about this as it gets closer to publication date. Watch this spot and sign up to follow my blog!

    Visiting family outside Portugal 

    Toddler eating an easter cookie.
    My eldest granddaughter, Annie, eats the sprinkles off an Easter cookie.

    At the end of March I flew back to the US to spend a few weeks with my son and his little family. More precisely, I came to help take care of my two lovely little granddaughters while my son was away on an army exercise and my daughter-in-law started a new job. 

    I am exulting in the total immersion experience of caring for these two adorable little girls, but I am only here for a short time. I have enormous admiration for what their parents have to go through for the next few years. When you have had your own adult life for a few decades you forget just how exhausting caring for a toddler and a baby can be. 

    It’s the constant need to be aware of all the potential dangers that lurk in the seemingly harmless home environment. The sharp edge of a cupboard, the hard surface of a floor for a baby’s head should it lose balance while sitting, the endless tiny objects possibly within reach that pose a choking hazard, the hazards of a staircase and on and on. 

    Then, there is the colossal challenge of dealing with a two-year-old’s mercurial mood-swings–one moment all smiles and laughter–the next, ear-piercing wails and screams. The innumerable battles of will over demands for a favorite food or toy, only to have it rejected or go uneaten. 

    And did I forget, wrestling with a wriggling baby who has deposited something very stinky in their diaper/nappy. I can’t understand why they haven’t substituted velcro for those irritatingly fiddly snaps on onesies. And don’t get me started on car seats. Yes, in the last 25 years I am sure technology has improved their safety, but oh are they hard to fasten and unfasten, especially when a little person is not happy about being clipped in. 

    Yes, folks, little children will stretch your patience beyond anything you ever imagined. But humankind keeps having them and–let’s face it, they are so darn cute! 

    Baby sitting on the floor.
    Baby MJ loves to laugh.

    Ukraine plight brings offers of help

    Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa expressing solidarity with groups of Ukrainians who gathered outside the Presidential palace in Belem a few days after Russian troops invaded Ukraine.

    A little more than two weeks ago, the Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s border began the invasion of that country. In the days since then, there has been near non-stop coverage of the horrors. Pictures and videos have shown droves of people fleeing the conflict zones. It’s scarily reminiscent of World War II movies, but this is real and it is now.

    Portugal has a sizable Ukrainian population. According to government statistics, there were around 27,000 Ukrainians living in Portugal in 2020, making them the fifth largest group of foreigners living in the country.

    Almost as soon as news of the fighting broke, Portugal and its people stepped up to offer help in many ways. The Portuguese president appeared on the CNN Portugal news broadcast speaking to a Ukrainian group to declare support and solidarity with their cause.

    Soon after, the government declared a temporary protection program to help Ukrainian refugees obtain residence permits and access to the country’s healthcare system. There will also be help for Ukrainians to find jobs when they come to Portugal. Many Portuguese lawyers have offered their legal services pro bono to help the Ukrainians.

    All over the country people are posting on Facebook groups and other media outlets to publicize the help efforts underway. People are offering space in their homes, making donations, organizing fundraising drives and gathering items to send to the beleaguered country.

    While it is heartening to see this outpouring of support. We all hope and pray that the hostilities will end as soon as possible.

    The city of Leiria has transformed this sign in its central square with the colors of the Ukrainian flag and the message “We are all Ukraine.”

    Portugal celebrates the season

    Christmas goodies on display at my local Intermarché supermarket in Portugal

    As Christmas approaches, stores in Portugal are brimming with decorations, boxes of chocolates and mounds of foods appropriate to the season. Friends, neighbors and people in the stores are offering each other the traditional Christmas and New Year’s wishes, which in Portuguese are: “Feliz Natal e Prospero Ano Novo.” New Year’s Eve is called “Passagem do Ano” or passing of the year.

    Fireworks are typical at the New Year season and the past two years even my rural area has, at times, sounded like the middle of a battlefield. Unfortunately the latest surge of Covid infections has forced the cancellation of many traditional firework displays and other public celebrations. Still, the city streets are decorated with colored lights and the atmosphere is festive.

    While Portugal has a wealth of pastries for sale every day at its thousands of cafés, the traditional sweet eaten during the Christmas season is Bolo Rei or King’s cake. This is a round bread-like cake decorated with crystalized fruits. It is especially typical on January 6, the day celebrated for the arrival of the Magi, or three kings.

    Turkey has become a staple of Christmas meals in the US and UK. Cranberry sauce is a regular accompaniment in the US, while brussels sprouts or parsnips are popular in the UK. When I lived in western Norway the Christmas dish for Julebord was pinnekjøtt made from dried salted ribs of lamb served with boiled potatoes. Here in Portugal traditional Christmas fare is bacalhau (dried salted cod) and cabbage. It seems counterintuitive that this would be a festive dish since dishes featuring bacalhau can be found on the menu year round at any restaurant. But there you go.

    Bacalhau is an age old way of preserving codfish by salting it and drying it. Before it can be cooked it must be cut in pieces and soaked for many hours and the water changed several times to remove the salt. Huge slabs of dried cod are stacked in every supermarket year round, giving off a – shall we say – “distinctive” odor.

    Stacks of bacalhau, dried salted cod, for sale at my local Intermarché supermarket.

    Be sure to follow my blog to hear tales of everyday life in Portugal. Feliz Natal!